Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Image Quote Comment

“So fully was the possibility of such an occurrence accepted in Caria, that one of that country was actually brought to trial under the following circumstances. The priest of Zeus Hoplosmios had been murdered; but as yet it had not been ascertained who was the assassin; when certain persons asserted that they had heard the murdered man’s head, which had been severed from the body, repeat several times the words, ‘Cercidas slew man on man.’ . . . But it is impossible that any one should utter a word when the windpipe is severed and no motion any longer derived from the lung. Moreover, among the Barbarians, where heads are chopped off with great rapidity, nothing of the kind has ever yet occurred” (Aristotle, De partibus animalium, trans. William Ogle, vol. 5 of The Works of Aristotle, eds. J.A. Smith and W.D. Ross [Oxford: Clarendon, 1912], 3.10). Aristotle’s reasoning situates the motif in a conflict between empirical possibility and desire for inaccessible knowledge. It silences the severed talking head by drowning the testimony of those who claim to hear it in the silence of those who sever heads.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sprouting a New Head

When thou seest in the pathway a severed head . . .

Ask of it, ask of it the secrets of the heart.[i]

I enter into a dead end. There all possibilities are exhausted; the “possible” slips away and the impossible prevails. To face the impossible—exorbitant, indubitable—when nothing is possible any longer is in my eyes to have an experience of the divine: it is analogous to a torment.[ii]

The executioner’s argument was that you couldn’t cut off a head unless there was a body to cut it off from; that he had never had to do such a thing before, and he wasn’t going to begin at his time of life. The King’s argument was that anything that had a head could be beheaded, and that you weren’t to talk nonsense. The Queen’s argument was that if something wasn’t done about it in less than no time, she’d have everybody executed, all round.[iii]

Beheading is impossible. The desire of this paper is to see what this means, namely, to understand the truth of saying so despite the fact, or more precisely through the fact, that beheading not only happens all the time, but constitutes a kind of happening that appears to continue happening, a phenomenon whose aesthetic structure, via its extreme and perfect finality, is ordered toward the perpetual. To say this, beheading is impossible, is to talk with the beheaded, to speak like a severed head, with words for which one has no voice. It means trying to say about beheading what is impossible to say, what only the severed head could say and does say in some secret way to the heads who see it. In other words, I will approach the significance of beheading as the attempt to speak beheading, to voice what beheading is in its intensest actuality, from the impossible, real, and thus inevitable perspective of the beheaded. To say beheading is impossible is not only to speak poetically, to use language in an attempt to traverse language’s distance from its object and turn language itself into a possession of it. It is not only a witty way of saying what the severed head, as the abstraction of all the individual heads that have been, are being, and will be severed, says in whatever words do or not make it through its mouth, namely, I am beheaded, therefore I am not (or something like that). To say beheading is impossible is also to assert, more practically and prosaically, that the significance of beheading in whatever form and context is fundamentally attached to the experience of having a head, an experience that is itself impossible . . .



[i] Jalal al-Din Rumi, Selected Poems from the Divani Shamzi Tabriz, trans. Reynold A. Nicholson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), II.5-7.

[ii] Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, trans. Leslie Anne Boldt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), 33.

[iii] Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1931), 91.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Getting Back into the Sorrow of Being

The root of all pure joy and sadness is that the world is as it is.—Giorgio Agamben[i]

Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.—Ludwig Wittgenstein[ii]

When I saw that his showing continued, I understood that it was shown for the sake of a great thing which was to come, a thing which God showed that he would do himself . . . But what this deed would be, that remained a mystery to me.—Julian of Norwich[iii]

Our concepts of sorrow seem universally related, in one way or another, to ideas of evil and privation. Sorrows of love, of loss, of pain, of disappointment, of conscience—all are barely thinkable without reference to some problematic object, the thing that one sorrows over, a negativity. This relation is clarified by Augustine’s definition of sorrow as counter-volition, as refusal: “cum . . . dissentimus ab eo quod nolentibus accidit, talis voluntas tristitia est” [sorrow is the will’s disagreement with something that happened against our will].[iv] But is there a form of sorrow that remains or emerges when all possible external objects of sorrow are taken away, when there is nothing left to sorrow over? In the context of the tradition of philosophical thought-experiments known as the “flying man” or “man in the void,” in which the reality of a rational incorporeal essence is logically demonstrated by imagining the self-awareness of a human being born fully developed into empty space, this would imply that the flying man (like a newborn?) would cry—something the thought-experimenters are not concerned with, i.e. how this floating being feels about being.[v] Or, in the comparable context of Descartes’s cogito, the reality of such sorrow would suggest the need for a qualifying extension to one of philosophy’s foundational phrases: I think, therefore I am, therefore I sorrow. The idea of such sorrow, a sorrow of being itself, appears at once obvious and absurd. Our existence simultaneously is and is not the greatest “something that happened against our will.” A pure sorrow, a perfect sorrow, a sorrow whose meaning is infinite?


[i] Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 90.

[ii] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, tr. C.K. Ogden (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1998), 6.44.

[iii] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Elizabeth Spearing (New York: Penguin, 1998), 91, my italics.

[iv] De civitate Dei, 14.6, ed. Bernard Dombart and Alphonse Kalb, 5th ed. (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1981).

[v] See Daniel Heller-Roazen, “Of Flying Creatures,” chapter 21 of The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation (New York: Zone: 2007) and Richard Sorabji, “Infallibility of Self-Knowledge: Cogito and Flying Man,” chapter 12 of Self: Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life, and Death (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A Pinch is All it Takes

" . . . now gentle gales / Fanning their odiferous wings dispense / Native perfumes, and whisper whence they stole / Those balmy spoils” (Paradise Lost, 4.156-9). Just as the alar movement of these lines destroys the distinction between breeze and scent, so not only spice’s aroma but spice itself is what it is of. Spice is the substance of the topological filling of space, a fundamentally spherical phenomenon whose pluridimensionality defines it as the olfactory analogue to the ancient definition of God as a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.